Once again, the 49ers have lost as a result of poor performance at the quarterback position.
Last week, I remonstrated Singletary and the media for falling prey to its own sentimental tendency to believe that the 49ers 2005 1st round "Cinderella" draft pick would finally blossom into the star everyone once hoped he would become. Today, Smith had his usual ups and downs, eventually throwing three interceptions--each at a key point in the contest--and generally failing to take advantage of this great opportunity to roll over a weak opponent with a weak pass defense. You'd have thought this should have been like shooting fish in a barrel for him, but he ended up throwing the game away, after a gutsy, courageous game by the defense. Take away those three interceptions--and a needless fumble he made as well--and the 49ers probably win this one by two touchdowns. That moaning you heard by the faithful in the stands at Candlestick Park, after the 3rd interception, was the agonized recognition that Smith just doesn't have it, and never will.
Once again, my prognostications have been proven true. This week the 49ers lost to a Tennessee Titans team, previously 1-6 in the current season, which was near the bottom in nearly every offensive and defensive category--notably, last in pass defense in the whole league. The 49ers, under Singletary, have one of the best defenses going, particularly against the run, as they had shown the previous week against Indianapolis, which has one of the best offenses of all time.
Singletary's overall philosophy--the character of the team he envisions as a winner--is a physical squad, tough, determined, strong. On offense, this translates into a run-emphasis strategy, using the forward pass just to keep the line-backers "honest". In Gore, he has one of the game's premier rushers. He began the year choosing Hill as his quarterback, who pretty much fulfills the Singletary approach: Ball control, good preparation, a minimum of mistakes, few turnovers, conservative passing game, level-headed "smart" management.
Smith was chosen by Nolan, Singletary's predecessor, on the strength of his potential to be a great open-field passer--perhaps along the lines of Drew Brees. Smith's performance in his first year was predictably mediocre--after all, few rookie NFL quarterbacks have great first years. In his second season, he showed little improvement, however. He sustained a serious shoulder injury, and quarreled with Nolan, and ended up having three surgeries.
This year, after one game in which the 49ers defense allowed three touchdowns in the 1st half against the Houston Texans, Singletary suddenly, impulsively, decided to give Smith a chance to salvage something of the day, putting him in after half-time. Predictably, with the pressure off and the Texans unprepared for Smith's open passing style, he shone, leading the team to a narrow comeback loss, 21-24, bringing stars into the eyes of hopeful fans and coaches. Nevertheless, there were disturbingly familiar signs of his former difficulties: A lack of focus, occasional errant, risky passes, poor clock management, and a sense of isolation from his team-mates, and the action occurring around him.
A good deal of his shortcomings have been excused as sophomore jinx, the frequent changes in offensive game plans (and coordinators), and a nagging lack of confidence. But these excuses belie the major problems with his performance. Great, even good, NFL quarterbacks can still thrive, even on unsettled teams. The best ones, like Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, have a dominating presence and command over situations and game plans--you can feel their effect on the flow of play.
Smith is not known as a running quarterback; in other words, he's a pure passer, and that's the one dimension in which he must succeed. He's not known, either, for his ability to improvise, either by calling "audibles," or by salvaging broken plays with third or fourth options. But as a passer, Smith has a number of weaknesses. First, he tends to telescope his passes, looking continuously at one receiver as the play unfolds, letting the defensive backs know precisely whom he's going to throw to. Second, he seems unable to check off options, picking an alternative receiver. Third, he seems unable to "see" downfield. This quality of vision is a primary ability all great quarterbacks have--the innate instinct to distinguish flashes of movement and openings as they develop quickly across the breadth of his field of vision. Quarterbacks who lack this skill typically build up high interception totals, because, despite a strong or accurate throwing arm, they're at the mercy of canny defensive backs who can see what's coming, and can hone in on an arriving ball. In addition, Smith tends to throw "desperation" passes--either too hard, or a little too high and wide (the result of pressing or throwing scared--under pressure).
All this frustration is especially painful for 49ers fans, given the great history of quarterbacks the franchise has enjoyed over the years: Frankie Albert, Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie, Steve Spurrier, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jeff Garcia. Between 1981 and 2002, the 49ers overall record was 240-105, with 5 Super Bowl wins and countless play-off appearances.
Alex Smith is a loser. He has flashes of brilliance, which one would expect of any 1st round pick All American, but he lacks the skills to succeed in the National Football League. Smith is probably a great guy, gregarious, dedicated, courageous--would probably make a great husband, father, executive, probably even fun to have a beer to two with. But as an NFL quarterback, he's a bust. Nothing to be ashamed of--hundreds of great college quarterbacks, once destined for NFL stardom, have fallen into obscurity. And as far as money is concerned, he's fixed for life, or should be, given the millions he's already been paid.
But Smith is a dead end as a starting quarterback. The 49ers would do well to reinstall Hill, take their lumps against the tough teams, and shoot for 8 or 9 wins this year. That's eminently doable, given their weak schedule.
Addendum: The Monday Morning Quarterback: SF Chronicle sportswriters this morning castigated the 49ers for the poor showing against the Titans, but stopped short of blaming it all on Smith, despite throwing three interceptions, and fumbling twice. Two of the interceptions came on tipped balls, but tips that occur at the reception point are usually the fault of the QB, either because the ball is thrown so hard or high that the receiver can't get a purchase on it, or because the defensive back is too close (because the QB has "telegraphed" his pass before-hand, tipping off the defensive back, or because coverage was too tight on that receiver). In either case, the receiver is usually not at fault, except to the degree that he may not have adequately faked or outrun his coverage. Giving Smith a get-out-of-jail-free card now is really counterproductive; the best the team can hope is that Singletary returns to his original plan and re-install Hill as QB. Doing that might enable the team to break even this year. Sticking relentlessly with Smith will only make the decision to get rid of him eventually harder. Smith isn't the 49ers Quarterback of the future, he's just a place-holder until we get a "real" leader at QB.